Christian Drobe

Review, Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien.

Christian Drobe

Review, Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien.

In the current discourse on the crisis-ridden state of the world, with Corona, war, the climate crisis or political decline, there is an increasing search for ways out of the misery. In view of the apparent desperation, it seems obvious to consult a genre that has always been responsible for shaping the future and great utopias: science fiction!

In the current discourse on the crisis-ridden state of the world, with Corona, war, the climate crisis or political decline, there is an increasing search for ways out of the misery. In view of the apparent desperation, it seems obvious to consult a genre that has always been responsible for shaping the future and great utopias: science fiction! This genre, which permeates popular culture from books to films and computer games, has also arrived in contemporary art in recent years.[1] By creating imagined words, science fiction initiates possibilities and models for the actual future and, as a genre, is founded intrinsically on the power of change. Yet, it is equally a mirror of the present and its faults and failures. Indigenous artists have similarly discovered it as an effective means of thinking about new models for the future of humanity, a future that they see as dominated by Western culture. This disparity is what they challenge, and it would lead to an emancipatory model that plays with and subverts strategies of popular culture. It is a way of saying, ‘we are part of this conversation too’. The current exhibition at Vienna’s Weltmuseum Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, curated by Stella Assiimwe, Claudia Augustat, Jonathan Fine, Ute Marxreiter and Tobias Mörike, brings together artists who have embraced this practice described as ‚Indigenous Futurism‘. Indigenous Futurism, a term first coined by Grace Dillon, is part of a cultural movement among Indigenous creators and artists that has gained traction in the last couple of years and spans literature, visual arts, film, and many other art forms.[2] Science fiction in this context is seen as dominated by colonial and neoliberal ways of thinking that replicate extant social inequalities. It is this speculative space that artists want to reclaim. Given the great influence of science fiction in popular culture, it is not surprising that activist indigenous have turned their attention to it in their work. What revolutionary potential the exhibition unfolds, and what future is determined by whom, is what the following comments on the exhibition will show.

Andy Everson, Tenacity. Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe

Star Wars everywhere

The group of works shown at the beginning of the exhibition, which are divided into several sections in the Weltmuseum (in total about 5-6 larger rooms), is cleverly chosen: it is about Star Wars, which has inspired pop culture like almost no other film series since its release in the late 1970s. The stormtrooper painted with indigenous patterns by Andy Everson, a contemporary Indigenous Artist from British Columbia, Canada, and the double-portrait of Princess Leia and an indigenous woman, designed by Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist and musician from Alaska, lead right into the problematic of the exhibition. It is about ‘cultural appropriation’ within science fiction.

The term has received a lot of attention recently, as it has been used to discuss how Western societies appropriate forms of other ethnicities without appreciating them or just exploiting them while suppressing the originators. Opponents of such questions, on the other hand, speak of exaggerated reactions and an essentialisation of ethnic characteristics that would only allow clearly defined identities of ethnic groups access to their cultural expressions. The artists argue from this direction of cultural appropriation, especially in Nicholas Galanin’s impressive photo collage of Princess Leia and an indigenous woman, or more precisely, an unmarried Hopi woman who has coiffed her hair into what is called a gourd flower or butterfly figure.[3] The photograph originally was taken by Edward Curtis, who photographed and documented Native American tribes at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether the team around Star Wars creator George Lucas appropriated the hairstyle of the Hopi Indians for Princess Leia, as the artist’s quotation in the catalogue suggests, or whether there is simply a visual resemblance here, cannot be readily said. George Lucas stated once that ‘he went with a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look. An image of a Mexican revolutionary who fought as a ‘soldadera’ and guerrilla in the early 20th century, someone like Clara de La Rocha. Later some people challenged that idea and pointed towards the Arizona Hopi Natives, while others referred to a Mongolian princess, who alleged lying served as inspiration for Lena. Her hairstyle with the wide knots behind her ears also recalls the traditional (native) styles of the 1930s in Europe, marked with all the trappings of a timely fashion, an ‘invented tradition’, and thereby with difficult ethnic or even ‘völkisch’ implications. Nevertheless, regardless of whether one follows the catalogue text and the accusation of false cultural appropriation, the artist succeeds in creating a striking juxtaposition that foregrounds the iconic value of both characters. From this, one can certainly read a strong empowerment of the indigenous woman, whether by saying that both are strong important women, or by the artist embracing the incongruence of a marginalized indigenous woman and a pop icon of the Western world.

Nicholas Galanin, Things Are Looking Native, Native´´ s Looking Whiter. Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe
Rory Wakemup, Smart Wars: Kill the Idiot Save the Fan 2.0. Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe

Such hybrid appropriations, a mix of Western and indigenous culture, have been around for some time. The patterns with which Andy Everson paints storm troopers remind the viewer of the 1970s. The iconic patterns are comparable, for example, to works by indigenous artists from the American Northwest who have been active since that time, producing such round iconic ornaments that they also apply to pop culture material.[4] Everson’s artwork similarly testifies to the playful use of the material and the self-confidence in its appropriation. After these two creations, a large room opens up full of Star Wars characters such as Darth Vader and other stormtroopers, life-size dolls, whose costumes have been decorated by Rory Wakemup, a Native American artist, with feathers, patterns and other jewellery. Smart Wars: Kill the Idiot Save the Fan 2.0 was a collective art action in the US somewhere between a costume and a subversive party, as shown in a documentary video installed in the exhibition. The catalogue text notes that in the Star Wars universe only a few are special, and that they then only receive skills to become better killers. According to the text, Indigenous people counter this legitimate criticism of the heroism of Western films with spiritual beliefs in balance and the idea of treating all things of creation with respect. At the end of the room, there are also some comics, among others by Nafra Skattysla, which are based on the style of Marvel, but have indigenous heroes or those of other ethnicities and cultures. As with the example of Princess Leia and other artworks in the exhibition, this is in tension with the idea of striving for an independent future. Why adopt and remodel Western pop culture and not do something completely different? But that is for the visitor to decide and will certainly be the subject of future discussions.

Ryan Singer, (De)colonized Ewok. Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe

At the end, a picture by Ryan Singer, a Navajo contemporary painter, shows a (De)Colonized Ewok, once in its natural costume, once in the uniform of the Empire. The Ewok has thus obviously been successfully colonised and has gone through the re-education camps and cadre schools of the dictatorial space regime, which is compared in the catalogue to historical Native American boarding schools. Here, the potential of the Star Wars metaphor is fully utilised, which provides rich material in view of the struggle of the oppressed against the empire. The works by Rory Wakemup and Andy Everson partially squander this potential, as it is not entirely clear why they are decorating the iconic armour of the imperial troops, whether as a subversive gesture against suppression or a playful approach to pop culture. For the latter reason, the first room of the exhibition, atmospherically darkened, offers a good introduction and plenty of eye candy while still stimulating thought. The familiar figures immediately draw the visitor into the action. The artists seem to be concerned with the transformative play with the icons of the science fiction world, and therein lies the critical potential of the exhibition.

Escape from Earth

The next room instantly leaves a deep impression, as if you were standing in a traditional, yet poor Latin American settlement. The narrow rooms and corridors, designed by the artist collectives Rigo 23 and EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional – Zapatista Army of National Liberation), is designed for immersion, to practically introduce the visitor to the community and its life, before a large interior space opens up with a spaceship constructed in the shape of a boat. The name of this project is Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, which has been renamed Disobedient Land for the exhibitions in Europe. The Zapatista movement EZLN is a radical left movement that has been opposing the Mexican state in the region of Chiapas for over thirty years and successfully self-organised their community. The poor region, inhabited mostly by Mayas and other indigenous people, can hardly hold its own against the central power and is left behind economically. The EZLN has been rebelling against these conditions since 1994, sometimes in an active, sometimes in a passive pacifist way, often using art performances. It is within this framework that the large series of art works can be read, with many slogans from the communities, pictures of hooded fighters and, in general, of the struggle against oppression. Only at second glance does the viewer notice that the spaceship is constructed like an ark and contains people and animals who are also engaged in all kinds of activities, e.g., on a basketball court. The inhabited ‘space boat’ can be interpreted as a metaphor of the European migrant crisis (and similar ones elsewhere) and all its challenges. It is as a symbol for building a new society from the ground up – as in the story of the Biblical ark. Since the refugee crisis in 2015, boats are increasingly found in exhibitions of contemporary art because they symbolize the experience of being a refugee. At the same time, they are signs of millennia-old craftsmanship that are an expression of exploring the world and being at one with nature. When the Zapatista group combines these works into their own colonisation of space, this can be seen as an act of liberation, the occupation of a space dominated by others and the prospect of a happy future. At the same time, the space boat or canoe serves as an ark, which also shows the tendency towards encapsulation (given the vastness of digital spaces, for instance, and the complexity of the world), a retreat and safe haven in which to escape the dangerous earth and colonised lands.

Rigo 23, Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program. Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe
Installation view : Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe

As the longer essays and interviews introduced in the catalogue show, with authors such as Drew Hayden Taylor, Rebecca Roanhorse and William Lempert, among others, the main concern is the occupation of the future space offered by science fiction. With its speculative experiments by authors from Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) to Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) there was always a new viewpoint to explore. The many other works in the exhibition, which cannot all be mentioned here in detail, all deal with these questions of how the future can be appropriated and changed. Indigenous artists organise their own Comic Con, film fests, festivals or generally want to be heard as players in the entertainment industry, which has so far been dominated by Western media. Many lovers of science fiction can be found here who want to find a way into these worlds, both physically and intellectually. We live in the age of representation, in which it is assumed that through the proper presence of an identity, the reality can be positively influenced. It is precisely this ideal that the artists gathered in the exhibition follow. The example of the Zapatista artists‘ group implements this idea with a strong symbol, the space ark and their free settlements, which of course simultaneously advertises their political struggle in the present.


After more exciting sections of the exhibition with video works by the Nigerian artist Wilfred Ukpong and the collective Superflux or the project Space Refugee by Halil Altindere, which presents the Syrian cosmonaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the latter part of the exhibition focusses on the different media that can be used for representing indigenous spaces of the future.

Halil Altindere, Space Refugee. Installation view Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum, foto: Christian Drobe

This includes, among other things, the virtual world of Tyson Mowarin, in which the land of the Aborigines is made accessible digitally. The final room also features a large diorama by Toronto-based artist Ekow Nimako, Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE, a black city created from the 2019 work Building Black: Civilizations. Nimako used Lego bricks to design a large, futuristic city inspired by the capital of medieval Ghana. The impressive layout of the concentric city, with towers, rooftops and endless detail, has a sculptural quality and represents a free narrative of black cultures. As can be observed with many artists in the exhibition (and in contemporary art in general), there is a strong tendency to build small self-contained worlds, dioramas, models, or, as the exhibition shows, even manned space arks. In this way, utopian spaces and landscapes are created in the physical sense.

Ekow Nimako @ekownimako, Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE. Installation view Science Fiction(s). If There Were a Tomorrow, Weltmuseum Wien. foto: Christian Drobe.

In Nimako’s case, the black colour of the Lego bricks creates a strong statement, as it embodies a symbol for a thriving, futuristic community in Africa. Yet, the work is also somewhat reminiscent of designs from Star Wars, such as the Star Destroyers of the Empire or the Death Star (the artist has previously created an adaptation of Darth Vader with Lego). This, of course, sounds less utopian, and is due to Nimako’s futuristic aesthetic. It is not intentional, but it raises the question of how these hybrids of pop culture overlap and how the dystopian tendencies of the present can be overcome and how quickly the dreamed utopia of an indigenous future could turn negative again. At any rate, Nimako’s work leaves the visitor slightly shivering at the end of the exhibition, even though the work is a prime example of Afrofuturism, a movement that has been gaining traction for a longer time now and which, parallel to Indigenous Futurism, promotes a stronger representation in science fiction and other utopian ideas. The film Black Panther and its depiction of the city of Wakanda are only the tip of the iceberg of a major preoccupation with their own future. This trend has also radiated to other cultural circles, such as Roma Futurism, represented by the Romea Kale Panthera (the Black Roma Panthers), and Hungarofuturism, which is presented as a liberation movement. Ultimately, the added value of these new futurisms lies in this transformative power that would design forms of the future.


One of the basic assumptions of science fiction is that it always reflects the time in which it was created, so in the case of Star Trek, for example, the Cold War (and in design the series was also influenced by Mid Century Modernism, as a new study shows).[5] Today’s interest in huge aliens, space operas, robots or dark cyberpunk worlds has good reasons. Artists and regular citizens alike are increasingly under the impression that, despite vehement protests and political actions, hardly any changes are taking place in society. Rather, all the detrimental side effects of capitalism seem to continue unabated, be it in environmental destruction or corruption or in rising populism. Many speak of an end of utopias since the 1970s, by which is meant that after that point in history, revolutionary potential in society has fizzled out. One can argue about that. The artists gathered at the Weltmuseum express with their works that the future can be positively occupied and shaped, from the perspective of very different ethnicities and groups and with very different approaches and materials. It remains to be seen, if this movement will see further success or remains just a fantasy of a revolution. This pluralism of the future is applied in the well-curated exhibition as a standard to which not only science fiction enthusiasts should orient themselves.

A visit to the exhibition at the Weltmuseum is possible until January 2024 and is absolutely recommended.

[1] Byrne-Smith, Dan (ed.) (2020): Science fiction. London, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery; The MIT Press (Documents of contemporary art); Barikin, Amelia; Bertoli, Damiano; Bliss, Lauren; Brophy, Philip; Butler, Rex; Clemens, Justin et al. (2013): Making worlds. Art and science fiction. Victoria: Surpllus.

[2] Spiers, Miriam C. Brown (2021): Encountering the sovereign other. Indigenous science fiction. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press (American Indian studies series).

[3] Asiimwe, Stella; Augustat, Claudia; Fine, Jonathan (eds.) (2023): Science Fiction(s). If there were a tomorrow. Wien: Weltmuseum Wien, p. 30.

[4] McLennan, Bill; Duffek, Karen (2000). The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of the Northwest Coast First Nations. UBC Press.

[5] Chavkin, Dan (2021): Star Trek. How Midcentury Modernism Shaped Our View of the Future. La Vergne: Weldon Owen.